How the Navanītakaṁ Supplied the Raw Material to Western Medicinal Research in Garlic

How the Navanītakaṁ Supplied the Raw Material to Western Medicinal Research in Garlic

Navanītakaṁ or the so-called Bower Manuscript contains a detailed exposition of garlic as a dietary item and as medicine. After its discovery, the Western medical community appropriated this information into its own research.

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— 10 — 

APART FROM PRECIOUS ANTIQUARIAN SITES, the discovery of the so-called Bower Manuscript also led to the revelation of hundreds of Sanskrit and the so-called “Mixed Sanskrit” manuscripts in East Turkistan. In general, a majority of these manuscripts were treatises or commentaries on various aspects of Bauddha Dharma. Researchers and scholars are nearly unanimous in their conclusion that the authors of these manuscripts were Buddhist monks who had typically migrated from Kashmir starting from the early part of the first century of the Common Era (CE). 

The authors of the so-called Bower Manuscript too, were Buddhist monks from Kashmir. Its correct name is Navanītakaṁ, literally meaning clarified butter.” Written on the bhūrja-patra or birch-bark, Navanītakaṁ is a compendium of Ayurveda compiled by four different authors belonging to the second century CE. The names of the first three authors remain unknown. All four originally hailed from Udyāna or Kashmir and migrated to Kucha and settled in the Buddhist monastery there. 

Yashomitra, the fourth author was perhaps the most eminent of the four. At Kucha, he quickly became renowned for his learning, saintliness and piety. He was the cynosure of the monastery and when he died, a Stupa was built in his honour. Known today as the Kumtura (caves), the Stupa had a Relic Chamber in which the Navanītakaṁ manuscript was deposited.  Yashomitra compiled and added fresh material to the Navanītakaṁ manuscript that his predecessors had left behind.

— 11 —  

THE NAVANĪTAKAṀ IS NOT an original text of Ayurveda but a collection of extracts from various Ayurvedic texts extant at the time of its composition. It quotes heavily from the Caraka and the Sushruta Samhitas and to a lesser extent, from the Bhela Samhita. A fragment of the Bhela Samhita is available even today in the famous Saraswati Mahal Library, Thanjavur. These apart, the authors of the Navanītakaṁ also give original Ayurvedic formulations not found in any preceding texts.

Like all ancient Indian medical treatises, the Navanītakaṁ too, is in verse. According to scholars, the language of the treatise is a combination of Sanskrit, “mixed Sanskrit,” Prakitised Sanskrit, and what is known as “Buddhist Hybrid Sanskrit.” It primarily employs three well-known Metres in Sanskrit: Anushtubh, Trishtubh and Arya. Including these, the total number of metres in the treatise is twenty-three, spread over 1323 verses, written on 51 birch-bark leaves. 

Unfortunately, the complete manuscript is unavailable, and that which has survived is divided into seven distinct treatises. This in turn is divided into two major sections: 

1. The “Larger” section comprising Treatises 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 and 7. 

2. The “Smaller” section comprising Treatise 6. 

The most noteworthy element in the Navanītakaṁ is the earnestness and the spirit of service of its compilers. In the opening verse of the “Smaller” section, the authors says that “this is a compilation of extracts from the standard medical works, and the floating medical tradition of” his time. Clearly, the authors were eager to preserve the ancient medical tradition for posterity.

A glimpse into the brief contents of Navanītakaṁ is sufficient to give a delightful flavour of the work. The first three treatises deal with medicine proper. The next two deals with divination and the last two with magical incantations (mantra). Various treatises of the work invoke Buddhist deities and Hindu deities such as Shiva, Vishnu and Devi. 

We can look at some snippets from the contents of Navanītakaṁ here. 

  • Preparation of various pastes (Lepa) for the head and hair.

  • A big list related to the preparation of various powders (Churna) and tablets (Gudika or Gulika). Some of these are in active use in our own age.  

  • Medicated ghee of various types. The total number is 28. 

  • Medicated oils. The total number is 17.

  • Various types of elixirs, aphrodisiacs, decoctions, dyes and ointments.

  • A whole treatise is devoted to the art of fortune-telling by the means of throwing dice. Different types of dice are mentioned. This eventually became a ritualistic practice in Tibetan texts.      

  • Another section is dedicated for magical incantations (Mantra) for curing many diseases and snake-bites, a highly ancient practice that was prevalent in India until recently. 

  • The final treatise of  Navanītakaṁ extensively deals with methods for protecting a person from various types of evils. 

— 12 — 

THE SPECIAL FEATURE OF Navanītakaṁ is its elaborate treatise on Lasuna or garlic. In fact, Navanītakaṁ opens with a chapter titled Lasunakalpa, meaning, “pharmacology of garlic.” Spread over forty-three verses, it is a magnificent and masterly exposition of garlic as both an item of diet and medicine. The exposition is also a marvellous piece of storytelling which traces the origin of garlic to the Puranic episode of Amrita-Manthana. A future piece in The Dharma Dispatch will narrate this story. 

Writing in 1923-24, Balwant Mohan, an eminent scholar and authority on the Navanītakaṁ gives us this revealing piece of insight: 

The actions and uses of garlic as a remedial substance are more fully discussed in Navanītakaṁ, than in any other medical book yet published in the Western medical Literature. Its use as described in most recent western medical publications, seems to have been adopted after the publication of the first edition of the Bower Manuscript.

This resembles another historical phenomenon of Westerners: of stealing and appropriating scientific, medical and other knowledge from countries and claiming it as their own. 

And so, Western medicine was another field in which Navanītakaṁ or the so-called Bower Manuscript left its lasting impact. As we remarked in the earlier episodes of this essay series, we are yet to fully explore the kind of durable influence that the ancient and classical Hindu civilisation left on cultures and societies and nations across the world. Our earlier series on how Indian pepper  made or broke European countries is another case in point.  

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Epilogue

THE SO-CALLED BOWER MANUSCRIPT that Rudolf Hoernle deciphered was finally published in 1912 in three thick volumes of gigantic size. He had spent twenty-one years on the work. It was an impressive feat. However, it was also a disservice because it remained inaccessible to the very audience which would benefit from it: Ayurvedic Vaidyas. A majority of these Vaidyas could scarcely afford the prohibitive cost of Navanītakaṁ. 

Sri Balwant Mohan, an academic and scholar, stepped in to help them. He initiated a correspondence with the Bengal Asiatic Society and after battling with the colonial bureaucracy, got the full manuscript and began working on it. After two years of sustained effort, he published a slim and affordable volume of the complete Navanītakaṁ in the original Sanskrit. He wrote a learned introduction and a preface to the work. Some extracts from his preface are painful and moving at the same time.

The… reason for neglect in its study by the Vaidyas, was its enormous size and high price, which a few could afford to pay. It was possible therefore that this grantha, one of the best researches into the state of Indian medicines, must have remained in obscurity for a still longer period, but for the attempt to bring it into the present form, as it lies before the readers. It was one of the several sources of information to scrutinise the fact that how such a valuable literature of our ancient ancestors went into decay… The main object of the present work is to furnish the Vaidyas with useful Ayurvedic work of ārṣa formulae and the way in which they were prevalent in the olden times… This work is produced…with no other motive of self-interest but with a view to make it accessible to all interested in Ayurvedic science.

Sri Balwant Mohan’s volume was published in January 1925 by Mehar Chand Lachman Das, Proprietor of the Sanskrit Book Depot in Said Mittha Bazaar, Lahore. 

Colonel Bower, who had purchased the original manuscript of Navanītakaṁ from a Turkic Muslim treasure-hunter, sold it to the Bodleian Library. It still lies there.

Series Concluded            

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